Instruction and Artist Musings
Copyright © 2021 Sherry Barrett
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.
Anyone can draw a person and get everyone to say, “Oh, that’s a person.”
O>-< See, I just did it using a keyboard. You might even say the person is lying down. But, you wouldn’t say it looks like anyone you know. It’s a symbol for person. Our brains are full of symbols for trees, flowers, rainbows and many other things that allow us to draw quickly when playing Pictionary and get the desired answer. But, these symbols are unsatisfying when we are trying to achieve the likeness of a family member. So, how does one get to the point of drawing things as they look to the critical mind? Here are some tips to get you moving in the right direction.
#1: Work from photographs you’ve taken.
From my experience, realism requires drawing from the real thing. I’ve been drawing off and on my entire life and I cannot whip out a realistic anything from my mind. I can make some cute cartoons or caricatures, and I’m an excellent Pictionary partner, but, if you want realism from me I need to be in front of the thing; or, better yet, a photograph. Photographs are helpful when learning because they can’t blink or move out of place and the lighting won’t change with the movement of the sun. The photograph also does the hard work of translating the 3-D object into a 2-D form.
#2: Draw on a large sheet of paper .
Trust me, you do not want to draw a full length portrait in a 4”x6” journal. You would need the steadiness of a surgeon to place every mark where it needs to be. I once did a small pencil drawing of my daughter and she looked crazy in the 6” x 9” sketch. I kept looking and looking trying to see what I did wrong. I had to erase the corner of her eye and draw the corner with one pencil dot. With one dab of the pencil it was perfect, but, I had to remove the dash that was wrong so I could place the dot to get it right. A DOT! Larger formats are more forgiving and provide more room for error.
#3: Spend more time looking at the subject than your drawing.
Don’t dive into drawing right away. Sit there and really look at what you’re drawing for a minimum of 5 minutes. Set a timer. Spend that time tracing every line you see using your imagination. Where are the darkest darks and the lightest lights? Is this composition short and wide or tall and thin? Plan how you will put it on the paper: horizontal or vertical? Will you use a 2B or 6B pencil to draw a baby? What part of the image do you want at the center of your paper? What do you like most about what you’re looking at? Don’t lose that! What is in front and what fades into the background? Really map out the drawing in your mind.
#4: Realism requires questions, corrections, erasers, and rulers.
For realism to blossom, your perspective lines must be spot on, your horizon needs to be level, the walls of your house need to be straight, and the person’s face must be in proportion to itself. Break out your library card and check out books on perspective, proportions, and drawing realistic faces. Erase errant marks and straighten wavy lines. You must keep looking at the original and compare it with the marks you just put on the paper. Does your line have the same slope? Correct it. Is the house really taller than the tree? Yes, it is a newly planted tree. Reassure yourself because your brain might try to make the tree to tall.
#5: Draw something, or someone, to whom you aren’t emotionally connected.
We are often unsatisfied with subjects we know very well because we are experts on the subject and emotions can complicate things. Our logical brain says, "Something isn't quite right with this drawing.” Our pet can look like a stuffed animal instead of the warm, charming critter we know them to be. While you are learning to draw more realistically, maybe avoid friends, family and pets for subjects. If you simply must draw a precious subject, consider turning your picture upside down and doing the drawing upside down. It somehow tricks that bossy, doubtful side of your brain so it doesn't quite recognize what you're up to.
#6: Practice and patience lead to improvement, not perfection.
As you practice drawing you are building your visual vocabulary of how you create various 3-D objects on a 2-D surface. You don't need to be as perfect as a camera because you are not a piece of machinery. But, with enough practice, you just might trick the human eye. Artists are playing an instrument that requires practice and tuning. Just like musicians, artists must practice 8 hours a day to perfect their performance. But even musicians who play a piece perfectly as written, can sound a little different. That’s the magic of humans and snowflakes, no two alike. Artists put a bit of themselves on the paper and that’s okay, even in realism.
It takes patience and persistence to achieve a realistic replication of an image and the artist must push through the moment when they most want to quit because that is often the moment they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Remember, what you draw tomorrow will be better than what you drew today because you never stop learning and improving.
I haven’t written a blog for a while because I am in, what my family refers to as, ”mad scientist mode". Mad Scientist Mode means I don’t do my hair or makeup, I wear paint covered clothing every day, I paint, I sleep, occasionally eating when reminded, and leave the studio only when necessary. I send the briefest texts and emails to friends and shorten the phone calls with family. I’m not available for lunch dates or play dates. I am not sad or mad at you, I hope I am not rude or hurtful, I am just a mad scientist on the verge of an artistic break through in my lab and I cannot be bothered until there is success or an explosion. (The above image is the bottom right hand corner of the all-consuming 4'x6' painting I'm working on.)
In March I got the idea for a painting that I thought might land a spot in Art Prize. I started work immediately because I have to convince someone that this painting is awesome before June 28th so I can be part of the show in September. So, every day I plug away at the painting and each day it looks more awesome. I can easily pass a day lost in the joy of the minutia of the painting. Don’t get me wrong there are other times when I have to walk away because something isn’t working and I'm frustrated, but that’s what happens when you’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist. It takes time to figure out this world and its conventions. It amazes me how my brain seems always to be working the painting in the back of my mind as I do other things. Suddenly in the middle of making dinner I’ll get an idea for how to fix something and then I can’t wait to get a paint brush in my hand and see if I’ve actually solved my problem.
This painting is definitely testing me. It's exhausted working as a slave with or without inspiration. I like the instant gratification of drawing and really haven’t painted anything this big and detailed and personal…well…ever. I find myself hearing in my mind the advice I often give my students….keep adding information, add shadows and highlights, add the next level of detail. Don’t give up, the more information you add the more the painting will make sense and come alive. Sure enough, while a sand beach will do, I’ve learned that a pebble beach is magnificent. While a vague impressionist style contains all the necessary information, realism can be a more powerful communicator. It's okay that no part of the painting is finished until the entire painting is finished. Tweaks are necessary to keep large paintings cohesive. It’s exhausting infusing a painting with yourself and your experiences, but the painting takes on a new level of believability, intimacy, and power when we’re brave.
So, I’m afraid my blog and instructional You Tube videos will necessarily be interrupted by Mad Scientist moments. As an artist, I am a slave to inspiration when it comes and calls my name. I must answer. If I don’t, inspiration will leave me and find someone else to bring it to life. So, I beg your patience as I pour my heart and soul on a canvas and try to capture for you to see what inspiration has whispered in my ear. Once the painting is finished, I will return to blogging and YouTubing, hair and makeup, cooking and cleaning and lunches with friends. Until then, I'm in a different kind of good place. I hope you too will listen for, and surrender to, inspiration in your life and see where it leads.
Drawing an all-white object is a great way to learn that all-white objects are not all white. With careful observation, the artist is forced to take note of the dark, medium, light and bright whites that give white objects their shape. The artist also notices that white objects do not exist in an all white room. Sometimes the space around a white object is equally important in telling the tale of the white object. So, sharpen your pencil and start drawing that white bird bath, chair, trellis, or whatever catches your eye .
Have you ever wondered what artists are doing when they seem to be glaring at a pencil they are holding at arms length? It may look ridiculous, but this is how artists take measurements. We don't carry a measuring tape like a seamstress, but we've learned to measure with one eye, a straight arm and a pencil, paintbrush, or just our hand. Proportion helps to harmonize our drawing with itself.
To practice drawing in proportion find an object in your house that you'd like to draw. I chose to try my cup again.
1. Place the object on the table in front of you.
2. Take your pencil in your drawing hand, extend that arm fully until your elbow locks. Close one eye and look at your object behind the pencil.
4. Place the tip of your pencil at the top of the object and slide your thumb nail down the pencil to the bottom of the object. That space from the tip of your pencil to your thumb is your height measurement. For this exercise, transfer this measurement directly onto your paper by placing your pencil on the paper and marking with the top by rocking your pencil so the lead makes a mark, then point a finger where your thumb nail is on the paper and make a pencil mark by that finger.
5. Next, turn your pencil horizontally, fully extend your arm and lock your elbow, close the same eye and look at the object along the pencil. Place the tip of the pencil on the far left side of the object and slide your thumb along the pencil until your nail reaches the far right side of the object. Transfer these width measurements to your paper in the same way.
6. You can also take more measurements. Perhaps you are drawing a wine glass and you need to determine where the glass ends and the stem begins. To do this, measure from the top of the glass to the start of the stem. Mark that distance on your drawing. Now, keeping your thumb in place (or remeasure the top again if you lost it) slide the tip of your pencil down to the start of the stem, where does your thumb land in relation to the object? Is it the bottom of the stem or the base of the glass or far below the glass on the table? Use that measurement to get the bottom half of the glass in proper proportion to the top. If you are measuring a brandy glass, the stem may begin 1/4 from the bottom of the total measurement; whereas, a wine glass stem may begin in the middle of the total measurement.
7. Proceed to draw your object within those boundaries and you will be delighted with the results. Measuring always ensures that people won't mistake your brandy glass for a wine glass.
Tips and Tricks:
1. Always close the same eye. (Go ahead, close your left eye, then your right eye while looking at your pencil and see what happens.)
2. Always fully extend your arm and lock your elbow, otherwise you will get a different measurement every time you put your pencil in front of you.
3. Try not to wiggle around or tilt your head. Stay put while measuring.
4. If your eyes refuse to cooperate with pencil measuring, take a photo of your object and print it out on your printer in black and white. Get out a ruler and literally measure the object in the printout. Place those measurements directly on your blank paper to serve as guidelines. Now make yourself draw within those boundaries and your object will be in proper proportion.
If a drawing is bothering you, it's often because something is out of proportion. I was recently helping a friend with a sea turtle that didn't look quite right. We laid her pencil on the turtle's shell and then on the front flipper to check the proportions. We couldn't believe the sea turtle's front flipper was as long as its shell. She had to make that front flipper longer than seemed necessary. But as soon as she lengthened the flipper, the drawing came together. Correcting a mistake is so much easier than starting all over again, so don't be afraid to measure before, during and after. Erase and replace faulty lines to get that proper proportion. And take heart, the more you practice the better your brain will get at seeing proportion without even measuring.
Sherry Barrett is an active artist who takes inspiration from great works of literature, historical figures, and wise people.